In 2019, 20 African countries are facing elections and changing tides. The World Economic Forum on Africa brings together leaders to discuss how to tackle the unique challenges faced by this continent’s diverse populations. Philanthropy U CEO Connor Diemand-Yauman reflects on key takeaways from the 28th World Economic Forum on Africa.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending the 28th World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town. With over 30% of our users residing and working in Africa, we found many of the discussions directly applicable to our work at Philanthropy U. Here are some of the major takeaways I walked away with: 

Different interpretations of “under-resourced” and “local”

After chatting with a number of major funders about the types of “local” social impact organizations they are serving, I was both disheartened (“Is this the best we can do as a sector?”) and buoyed (“Philanthropy U is addressing a major gap!”). 

In short, many are still funding established local organizations that are already well-resourced. As an example, funders predominantly administer multi-year, double-digit million-dollar grants to their “local partners”: imagine the size and stability of organizations able to absorb that level of capital! There is a clear disconnect between near-universal excitement around the importance of “local” and “grassroots” organizations with the similarly universal preference for funding hyper-established, well-resourced organizations. 

How can we as a sector begin to surface and support the under-resourced and the un-networked as viable grantees (and foundational to the SDGs) in the deeply established philanthropy game?

The dual expectations of civil society organizations

Many funders bemoaned difficulties in trying to  empower civil society organizations (CSOs) to find time for higher-level, strategic planning and more tactical, day-to-day programmatic work. This came up specifically in a chat I had with the CEO of a multinational foundation who mentioned that many of her grantees reported that much of the value from their capacity-building sessions has simply been in having the time and space away from their organizations to reflect on what they’re doing.

The relationship between CSOs and governments

The complex relationships between CSOs and governments was a common theme throughout the Forum. One of the more interesting discussions was about funders’ recognition that government was the ultimate scaler of social programs while paradoxically pushing many of their grantees away from the appearance of challenging their local governments. For instance, I heard a funder talk about how they tend to encourage their grantees to “play nice” with local governments, and stay away from funding organizations that do not seem to have governmental buy-in. 

There is clearly a tricky balance to strike, but I found questions surrounding the dynamics between CSOs and governments (and the fine lines that both must cross for effective partnerships and service delivery) complicated and fascinating.

New colonialism

Reflections and discussions around colonialism and race dynamics abounded at WEF. Three specific areas I found particularly interesting and relevant were:  

  • Digital colonialism: Many Global North technology firms are extracting resources (in the form of data, eyeballs, human capital) from African nations, further cementing their dominant role. You only need to consider the 139 million monthly users of Facebook to begin grappling with the implications of this dynamic.
  • Cultural colonialism fueled by technology: I had a very interesting chat about how the pervasiveness of Global North technologies is also silently,  surreptitiously changing the way that African nations think and problem-solve. Put another way: implicit in tools like Facebook, Microsoft Office, etc. is the problem-solving approach of the people who made them (primarily men from the Global North). How does this change the way African users (and all users) think, problem-solve and present information? What are we all losing as these approaches are further homogenized?
  • Colonialism via aid:  Another theme was viewing development aid as a form of control. Many claimed the ultimate aim of foreign development aid is not to deliver results, but instead to exert control over African nations and cement their role as beneficiaries and beggars. This conversation is not a new one and highlights the need to trust communities instead of dictating to them.

At Philanthropy U we are thinking deeply about these problems, both in terms of how we can be a part of the solution and consider how we may be complicit. Our commitment to local social impact organizations must be comprehensive to be effective and spark the systematic change we want to see. These takeaways will fuel internal discussions for months to come, by sharing them here, I hope they also inspire you to action.

October 2, 2019


Connor is the CEO of Philanthropy U. He is passionate about systems-level change, local social impact and education reform.


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